The Gospel for February 12th, 2017: “Teaching about the Law,” “Teaching about Anger,” “Teaching about Adultery,” “Teaching about Divorce,” and “Teaching about Oaths”
Matthew 5: 17-37
Today’s gospel is so challenging I am tempted not to write about it. On first reading it appears Jesus expects perfect adherence to the commandments. The standard is so high it is beyond me. Since the goal of every Christian is holiness, this standard makes perfect sense. And yet I am so far from holy I fear I will never live up to this standard in my life. Take for example Jesus’ teaching on adultery (Is there a faster way to stir up controversy than to talk about sex?). After citing the original commandment forbidding adultery, he expands the understanding of the commandment to go beyond the physical act. He teaches, “[E]veryone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (28). Honestly, I may have been guilty of this every day since I was twelve years old. It requires a level of detachment, a mortification of the senses, a denial of biological instinct, I scarcely believe is possible. Additionally Jesus sets this same towering standard for anger (21-26), divorce (31-32), and oaths (33-37) in this gospel alone. The passage continues with strictures against retaliation (38-42) and hatred (43-48) in same impossible vein. If this is what Jesus expects of me, what is a sinner to do?
On second reading I find hope in the introduction. Jesus claims, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (17). I think he is speaking to the Mosaic, legalistic mindset of faith common to the first century and best represented by the Pharisees. If a believer treats the commandments as series of laws to follow, it is possible to achieve compliance without a conversion of the heart. Jesus knows it in that surrender of our hearts and wills to the Father we can finally love unconditionally. Only in this radical love can we put God and the good of others before our own selfish desires and fears. So he is addressing not the letter of the laws, but their spirit in this challenging gospel. In His life and teaching we see what this radical, perfect love looks like. Sometimes it even requires we ignore moral laws that do not fulfill the spirit of God’s love, such as when Jesus healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3: 1-6). If we are called to do more than just blindly follow the letter of the law, our salvation is returned back to Jesus from a legalism that allows room for pride and selfishness. Even if I have not committed adultery I am being selfish when I treat women as objects of pleasure, even out of public view in the fantasy of my own mind; therefore, I cannot conclude my salvation is secure because I have not committed the physical act. My heart is not fully surrendered to God’s will if I continue to use women in this selfish way. This is true of all the commandments Jesus cites in this gospel. He wants our hearts, not our compliance.
So I return to the question: What’s a sinner to do? We must remember our salvation is not in our hands, but in the hands of the Lord. Our works will not be enough alone to complete this conversion of the heart. Instead, we throw ourselves at Jesus, begging for His mercy and healing, for the miracles of perfection that only He is capable of giving. Our hope is in His grace and not in the futile attempt to comply with the commandments on our own. Prayer, worship, and confession become daily habits when we realize we need Jesus to be saved. Frequently salvation from sin is salvation from own desires. We must deny ourselves and take up the cross, but we do so only if we can be humble enough to ask Jesus, His Church, and our fellow Christians to help us carry it. And get back up when we stumble and fall. I believe Jesus came to save us all, Jew and Gentile, man and woman, Christian and non-Christian alike. I do not believe His plan is to set impossible standards that will exclude me or others from the saved. Instead, I think passages like this one remind me simply that my salvation is in His hands, and I must humble myself and continue to try to give myself over to Him and His will, even though I frequently fall short and need forgiveness and mercy. The salvation of many of us, maybe all of us, will not be accomplished as a series of tasks resulting in perfection, but rather it will be another miracle from His hands that we must simply accept beyond the limits of our reason and pride. Jesus saves, brothers and sisters; Jesus saves.